Picturing a Poster for Phones

For many scientists today, working a research conference using smartphones has become second-nature. Whether it’s live-tweeting a talk, or taking photos of other people’s posters, smartphones have greatly enhanced the conference networking and learning experience.

It was the poster aspect that had me thinking recently. How can we make a better poster layout that would be more friendly to smartphone users — and quite frankly, wouldn’t be the usual boring snooze crammed with 12-point font text? Something that will stand out from the crowd?

You can see the beginnings of my experiment in this design I created for Kevin Lafferty, a P.I. with the U.S. Geological Survey and UC Santa Barbara:

WERC Poster Lafferty 201405 Megadata


The key addition is the “Project Snapshot” — this is actually where I’ve tucked all the technical abstract, the citation, the coauthors, the email addresses, and all the “usual” poster elements.

Essentially, I’ve written up your notes for you in this 9×12 inch space; the camera icon is a reminder that you literally can just take a snapshot of this box, and not have to write all this down.

WERC Poster Lafferty 201405 Megadata2


(Note: If you do a thick lamination on the poster, it may pose issues with light reflection — so watch out for that.)

You can play with the layout, colors, and fonts in this Adobe InDesign template I’ve provided, and I welcome others to improve upon this design and share their ideas!

What about the rest of the poster real estate? For that, I drew inspiration from webpages, newspapers, and other design realms:

younglandis conf poster layout


Content-wise, I wanted to reorganize and trim the traditional bins of Introduction-Background-Methods-Results-Conclusions that many of us learned for our first science fair project as children, and reinforced later in academic training.

Instead, I thought about that person wandering around a poster session, who already visited the posters they wanted to see, and is now just wandering and browsing poster after poster — how do I capture and leverage that person’s attention and time? I then reorganized the content into these bins:

  • Intro Box: This is the ultimate, condensed summation of your poster, like your 30-second elevator speech or the lede sentence in a news story — the super abstract. Tell me what you’re doing, and why it’s a big deal.
  • Key Concept: This is an adaption of the Background section. I might not be well-versed in your specific research field, so explain to me a core concept or research history that I need to understand first in order to appreciate your project.
  • “The Whale Tank”: This is where you show off your goods. Big, bold, and centered in the poster, this is The Main Event and showpiece you want everyone to see and say “Wow” — whether it’s your cool new methodology or new finding. Impress me with the big takeaway of your research and that Key Figure and/or gorgeous research photos. Make these visuals nice and big, to make that wandering browser stop in their tracks and stay to read your poster.
  • Next Steps: This is straight out of the traditional “future research directions” section. It’s also a nice space to solicit ideas for collaboration.

These new bins may seem oversimplified, but they are also the bare essence of information that we key in on when browsing poster sessions, and quite flexible in terms of desired content.

Design-wise, the content text font size is bumped up to 30 point. I recommend that you limit the poster to at most three fonts — a serif font for content text for ease of reading; a sans-serif font for titles and footers; and a narrow, sans-serif font for the Project Snapshot that lets you fit in more text, yet clean enough to read via a photo.

You’ll also note that each text box is set up in a 3:4 or 4:3 aspect ratio — the same as many smartphone cameras. This way, you can easily photograph complete sections of text — instead of trying to snap a photo of the entire poster, which usually ends up too blurry to read anyway. And if someone wants to download the poster PDF itself, the footer bar provides space for QR codes, URLs, and other access information.

A great poster will not only deliver the science, but also help the reader digest it. In today’s world, a great conference poster should capture a person’s attention, deliver the main takeaway, and compel that person to visit your lab website and read your papers — and more importantly, to contact you directly and learn about your research.


Thanks to Josh Witten and Allison Barner for prompting this write-up. More ideas from Witten here.


One thought on “Picturing a Poster for Phones

  1. Pingback: A work of staggering genius | The Finch and Pea

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